Mafia Island is one of the five sleepy, tropical islands which are clustered together in the Indian Ocean, known as the Mafia Archipelago. They are a 30-60-minute flight from Dar es Salaam and, compared with Zanzibar are relatively little known – yet if you are seeking an undisturbed beach holiday, they are well worth considering.
On arriving at Mafia's tiny airport it is clear that the pace of life is slow here. Recently paved roads lead through the otherwise sandy-laned, one-street capital of Kilindoni, then give way to friendly farming and fishing villages. On the coast you'll find mangrove forests, a few short stretches of golden beach and a brilliant turquoise sea. Sleepy dhows float between the islands.
All five islands of the archipelago – Mafia, Jibondo, Juani, Chole and Bwejuu – have lush vegetation and wildlife, with coconut palms, baobabs, cashews, mangos and papaya trees in the interior. These forests are home to bushbabies, wild pigs, blue duikers, genets, vervet monkeys and Pteropus fruit bats, or flying foxes. On the coast, mangrove forests and tidal flats attract endless sea birds. It’s worth noting that due to the tide, seaweed can wash up on shore and so the beaches are not as pristine as some parts of the Indian Ocean.
Mafia Island Marine Park
It is the ocean here that is the great attraction. In 1995, the Mafia Island Marine Park
was formed to protect the archipelago's reefs. Within Chole Bay, the shallow reefs are perfect for snorkelling or learning to dive. Outside the bay, its entrance is guarded by a long coral wall, attracting more experienced divers. Here are more than 50 kinds of coral, including giant table corals, huge stands of blue-tipped staghorn corals, and more than 400 species of fish.
This is one of Tanzania's best areas for diving. You'll always see something exciting, from rainbow-coloured clownfish to octopus, rays and the odd gigantic grouper or large potato cod. Sharks and dolphins are found in the deeper waters, and at night turtles haul themselves onto remote beaches to nest. Note that due to local winds and currents, dive sites outside the bay are often only safely accessible from about mid-September to the end of February.
When you drive across Mafia to transfer to any of the lodges on the east coast, or to Chole Island, you will go through the Marine Park entrance gate on the main road, and you will have to pay daily fees in advance, depending on the size of your party and the length of your stay. Unfortunately, Expert Africa cannot pay these fees in advance, and none of the local lodges do so on your behalf, so do be prepared. Happily they take credit cards. The current fee is $23.60 or the equivalent in Tanzanian shillings. You will need to show your receipt and ticket every time you pass through the gate on this trans-island road.
There are five beach lodges around Mafia, on two islands:
Very close neighbours Kinasi Lodge and Pole Pole each have small sections of beach in front of them, with protecting mangroves around.
Kinasi lodge has 14 rooms spaced around a landscaped hillside studded with palm trees. Kinasi is furnished with antiques and chairs made specifically for the lodge. There are board games to play, a library, an antique billiard table and a sociable, active atmosphere.
Pole pole s a sleepy little lodge with just seven well-appointed wooden bungalows overlooking Chole Bay. It's a place to relax, eat well, snorkel, dive and to lie back and enjoy a massage. Best of all are the free dhow day-trips to remote sand bars – so you feel like you've had an active day, even though you've just been relaxing.
Also nearby is Shamba Kileo– a pleasant, low-key, owner-run lodge with a great atmosphere and good diving opportunities.
On the mainland side of Mafia, Butiama beach is a very consistent and enjoyable beach lodge, with good food and offering the opportunity to snorkel, dive or swim with whale sharks.
The remarkable Cole mjini lodge has been set up as a partnership with adjacent villagers. It has a few beautifully-built tree-houses on stilts in baobab trees, plus one imaginatively-designed room on the ground. Chole Mjini is a great place to experience village life, and also offers great diving, snorkelling and complementary dhow trips to sand bars. The whale shark encounters
they offer are the most interesting and responsible on Mafia - a highly rewarding and memorable experience.